Suleiman Khalaf, also known as Abu Fadi, was killed 10 days ago in a fight with Isis in eastern Syria when the vehicle he was in was hit by a heat-seeking missile. “He was driving a bulldozer which was building an earth rampart when Isis hit it with a missile we call a ‘fuzia’,” said Baran Omari, the commander of his unit in the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).
“Isis attacked us in the village of Bagin in Deir Ezzor province [in eastern Syria],” he explained, adding that his men had been able to kill those who fired the missile. He described Khalaf, who was about 50 when he died, as a very brave man because he had the peculiarly dangerous job of constructing tactical earth fortifications in the middle of battles.
Omari, whose name is a nom de guerre, was standing beside Khalaf’s newly dug grave in the military cemetery in the city of Qamishli in north-east Syria. There is a poster with a picture of the dead man at one end of the grave which is decorated with artificial red and yellow flowers. He pointed to half a dozen fresh graves nearby and said that they belonged to YPG fighters who had been killed recently fighting Isis.
This should not be happening because Isis was supposed to have been decisively defeated last year when it lost Raqqa and Mosul, its de facto capitals in Syria and Iraq respectively. The self-declared Isis caliphate, the size of Great Britain only three years ago, had shrunk to a few enclaves in the deserts of eastern Syri and western Iraq.
But it is turning out that the enemies of Isis had written it off too early. There are an increasing number of fights like the one in which Khalaf died. A senior Kurdish official in Syria says that 170 of their forces have died in combat with Isis in the past six weeks. On 19 February in Iraq, Isis ambushed an intelligence unit of the Hashd al-Shaabi pro-government militia in the Hawijah district west of Kirkuk and killed 27 of them. Western diplomats say that they are worried by the increasing number of pin-prick attacks, which mean that Isis is beginning to get back in business. In Qamishli, the first Isis car bomb in six months, killed five people and wounded seven last month.
There are other signs of an Isis resurgence in its old strongholds. A recent visitor to Deir Ezzor province warned that “local people talk of an Isis comeback and you should not be on the roads after 3pm, because that is when the SDF [the mixed Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces] abandon their checkpoints for the night”. Similarly in Hawijah, government officials are reported to be spending the night in Kirkuk where they are safe from Isis assassination squads.
The main cause of the rebirth of Isis, though still limited in scale, is not difficult to detect. Those who claimed to have destroyed the movement last year were dividing the lion’s skin when it was badly wounded but not quite as dead as they believed. After declaring victory prematurely, they became diverted by other crises. In Iraq it was the Kurdish referendum on independence that provoked the Baghdad government to send its forces that had been fighting Isis to retake Kirkuk and other territories disputed with the Kurds on 16 October.
Najmaldin Karim, the Kurdish former governor of Kirkuk, says that the Iraqi security services never really secured Hawijah, traditionally a hardcore Isis area, because they were too busy confronting the Kurds.
In Syria, it was the Turkish invasion of the Kurdish enclave of Afrin north of Aleppo on 20 January which suddenly made the military situation more favourable to Isis. Asked if Isis is getting stronger, Aldar Khalil, the co-chairman of the Executive Committee for a Democratic Society – which runs the 30 per cent of Syria held by the Kurds with US backing – says: “Go look at our cemeteries. Every day we lose five, seven or 18 martyrs. Isis are now the ones doing the attacking, while we used to be the ones who were on the offensive.”
The Arab-Kurdish SDF is said by the Americans to have a strength of 57,000 fighters, but this is not large, given the sheer size of the Kurdish-held territories. The core of the SDF is the YPG Kurds and many of these are being transferred from confronting Isis in Deir Ezzor to fighting the Turkish invasion of Afrin in the north-west. Elham Ahmad, co-chairman of the Syrian Democratic Council, which helps administer the Kurdish-held area, comes from Afrin where her family still lives. She says that “the front against Isis is fractured. My relatives who were fighting Isis in Deir Ezzor know they must go back to Afrin to fight the Turks there.”
The re-emergence of Isis is still only in its early stages. In Raqqa, where Isis held out for four months until 20 October last year, there are rumours of Isis “sleeper cells”, but there have been no attacks says Masloum, an SDF field commander in the city. Even so, he is taking no chances and there is a curfew that starts at 5pm. This does not necessarily imply that there is any great threat from Isis, but is a testament to the terror people in the city feel in recalling the sadistic and merciless rule of the movement after they took over the city in early 2014. “Their security men used to mask their faces so we don’t know who they were and they may still be living here,” said one local observer nervously.
It is unlikely that Isis will ever come back in full force because of its heavy losses, reputation for mindless savagery and lack of external support. But it can still do a lot to stir up ethnic and sectarian hatred since many Syrians suspect people from Raqqa as secret Isis supporters and likewise in Iraq in respect to Mosul. Communal punishment of Sunni Arabs in Hawijah after the killing of the 27 Hashd, mostly Shia from Basra, might provoke a backlash favouring Isis recruitment.
An Isis revival may be favoured by its undoubted military expertise and experience, which were always one feature of the movement, monstrous though it was in every other way. Isis commanders will have known beforehand that they were bound to lose Mosul and Raqqa in the long term because they were so heavily outgunned. They appear to have successfully spirited their leader, the self-declared Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, out of Mosul and kept him hidden.
It is likely that Isis will have taken measures to keep some of their experienced commanders safe and prepared hideouts and weapons caches in the desert. This is what enabled the forerunners of Isis to survive defeat between 2007 and 2011 and then re-emerge when circumstances became more favourable. Isis today looks as if it is hoping to rise again in just the same way.